We might disentangle the web of conditions that make philanthropy both possible and necessary. ~ Darren Walker, Ford Foundation

If you work in philanthropy, surrounded by all of its inherent contradictions, it’s a matter of time until you have your Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime moment. “And you may ask yourself, well… How did I get here?”

On paper it’s your dream job, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. You’re committed to reducing inequality, yet you fear you’re part of a system that perpetuates it. You want to empower others, but unequal power dynamics are inherent throughout your work. You want to reduce poverty, though you’re surrounded by wealth, luxury and privilege. You advocate for greater transparency and accountability, but there is little to hold you accountable for how you disburse millions of dollars.

And then there are more philosophical considerations. You stress the importance of government (“public spending on education in California is $76.6 billion per year on education compared to less than $1 billion by the Gates Foundation across the entire country”), and sometimes you wonder whether you could accomplish more in government than through philanthropy. Other times you think that Google has improved the lives of more people in less than two decades than most private foundations that have been around for three times as long, and you wonder if you too should work in the private sector.

But there is something about philanthropy that is uniquely appealing, and (let’s be honest) it’s related to its lack of inherent accountability. You don’t work for a corporation; you’re not beholden to investors and quarterly earnings. And since you don’t work in government, you don’t have to worry about the next election around the corner and all the fundraising it will require. You can contemplate the problems that face us with a much longer time horizon. If you work at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, you can consider how to improve healthcare in the US over the next century. If you’re president, you’ve got four, maybe eight, years.

Thinking across long time horizons is especially relevant for younger program officers. We expect to be around for the next 50, 60, 70 years and we have a personal stake in the development of society’s norms, institutions and technologies. We’re tasked with developing strategies for the next two or three years of grantmaking, but rarely do we have the opportunity to seriously discuss our long term visions to insanely complex problems ten or even 20 years down the road.

My friends at the Institute for the Future are hosting a two-day workshop in Palo Alto on November 18 & 19 for program officers from private foundations that are interested in the future of philanthropy and philanthropy’s impact on the future. It builds on research they’ve done on today’s forces that are transforming tomorrow’s philanthropy. And it is also meant to offer something of a support group for those of us working in philanthropy and grappling with Big Questions about our work, our impact and our careers. Big questions like:

  • What are the most important soft skills for a program officer and how can we get better at them? How do we learn to say no more effectively?
  • When you take away the money and paperwork, how do program officers actually add value?
  • How are new technologies changing philanthropy? Why isn’t it happening faster?
  • What is particularly well suited for philanthropy? What should be left to the public and private sectors?
  • What are effective strategies to change how private foundations work from the inside?
  • How do we remain authentic to ourselves and our values while maintaining credibility and professionalism with our colleagues and grantees?
  • What can we learn from existing and ongoing studies of philanthropy, including the Open Philanthropy ProjectPhilanthropy University, the History of Philanthropy project, and HistPhil?
  • How can we inspire one another? How can we make this all just a little bit more fun?

I hope you’ll join us. Working as a program officer at a private foundation can be a surprisingly lonely endeavor. But it doesn’t have to be.